Whitley Neill founder gives masterclass on gin - and African Boabab tree

Johnny Neill of Whitley Neill Handcrafted Dry Gin
Gail Bell

NORTHERN Ireland may be better known for its craft beer and whiskey. But gin is the emerging new taste in sophisticated pubs, clubs and restaurants according to Johnny Neill, industry expert and creator of the critic's gin-of-choice Whitley Neill.

In Belfast to launch his new London Dry at a masterclass with over 50 trading partners and guests, Johnny also revealed ambitions to resurrect the Gelston Old Irish Whiskey brand sold by his great great grandfather's wine and spirit business in Belfast's Corporation Street in the 1870s.

"I would love to open a distillery here, especially because of my family links, and my great great grandfather Henry J Neill, who bought the S Gelston business in 1870 and then sold Gelston's Old Irish Whiskey among other things," he said.

"At the minute, though, I am concentrating on the launch of the London Dry brand and a new elderflower gin which hasn't been introduced into Ireland yet.

"I think Northern Ireland may have been a little behind when it comes to gin, but that is now changing and certainly, the feedback from the master class has been very encouraging.

"There is a real renaissance going on and, after being in the doldrums during the 70s and 80s, people are beginning to appreciate the complexity of gin again - that can be clearly seen in the number of dedicated gin bars collecting a growing number of new customers in the north."

In addition to the masterclass - with the aim of introducing Whitley Neill Gin (still distilled in a 100 year-old antique copper pot) to more Northern Ireland top-end bars and premium retailers - the Berkshire gin 'master' also took the opportunity to visit the public record office before flying home to Newbury.

With strong links to the region and a family name immersed in the trade - Johnny is also a descendent of Thomas Greenall who founded Greenall's distillery of Warrington in 1762 - his visit presented an ideal opportunity to carry out more research into the family tree while promoting his latest beverage.

The unique selling point for the brand, he stressed, was the uniqueness of the taste - inspired by the Boabab 'tree of life' in South Africa and gooseberries from the African 'Cape'.

"I tried distilling over 25 African botanicals with varying success, including plants such as the protea flower, the national flower of South Africa," he said, "but none of them were delivering a flavour profile or aroma that partnered the juniper/coriander/citrus that make up the heart of Whitley Neill - so I started looking at citrus as a route and stumbled across the Boabab trees and Cape gooseberries.

"Both these, when distilled individually, delivered the unique and very different citrus notes that are now an intrinsic part of Whitley Neill."

Essentially, he has his African-born wife to thank for the recipe - which took over 18 months to perfect - having been prompted by her vivid stories of the Boabab, which, in her homeland, was used for everything from medicines to rope-making and even as a mystical protection against crocodile attack.

"Our brand is nearly 10 years old and this year we will be despatching around 25,000 cases of gin to all over the UK and South Africa," he added. "People are seeking something different now and are moving away from flavoured vodkas.

"I grew up on gin - not literally - but, after a rather 'dry' career in property and finance, I now love to create my own recipes.

"You never run out of ideas for new flavours and aromas that could be derived from the flower, seed, root or other parts of indigenous plants."


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